Nonfiction / Vanessa Couto Johnson
:: my powerlifted Body ::
In youth, there were times when I wanted to occupy no space whatsoever.
When I wanted to just be a mind.
There are various reasons to not want to be visible to the world / there are various ways the world tells us not to be visible or fear being visible, especially as a woman.
[If I am visible, what am I vulnerable to, what am I valued by, how do I control my currency and presence.]
Lifting has helped me accept that I am a physical being. Not only accept but also celebrate.
When I hear other women’s powerlifting origin stories, so often they are tales of reclamation of the body. The lifting helping them find and value themselves.
I am not planning on building a body inside of mine. [Thrust of existence.]
So, I build the one I have.
I want this body to be able to do for me in old age: that is the longest-term goal. That the bones be strong and that I can still brute about. If something doesn’t get me (accident, powerful illness), my genetic testing has suggested a likelihood of reaching centenarian state (longevity being something observed among my ancestors as well). Not that I’m expecting to be deadlifting 500 lb. at 80 years old and beyond, but I’d hope to still be able to do 250 lb. at least. That is possible. Hello to my 80-year-old self, if she reads this.
When I see a body low on muscle, I wonder-worry for the future of that person. It’s not my business. It’s something I try not to think about.
But I do look at bodies and think: those fingers almost at knees—would be a good deadlifter. And so on.
Pardon this all—I do believe people should do whatever they want with their bodies.
But yes. It’s the heart that drives the athlete. The want.
In terms of lifting in a menstruating body, I’m weakest in the week before menstruation (scientifically researched stuff, this is, and I’m saying it’s indeed my experience). I’m then strongest during menstruation.
That said, I wouldn’t want to compete during menstruation (an additional chore to deal with), and that hasn’t coincided for me at the time of writing this.
I’ve wondered at times what sort of powerlifting numbers I’d be putting up if I started younger (teens or early 20s rather than mid/late 20s).
Or if I were a man. But I don’t think of that one much, because that wouldn’t be the body for me, even if it is an (perhaps) easier one to get stronger.
I have thought of how, as a trained woman, I should probably have as much (if not a bit more) muscularity as an untrained man has, and then on top of that the body fat level I need as a healthy woman, therefore that I should weigh more than the average untrained man at around my height. That’s definitely not totally scientific though. But it is a part of the thinking that made me not fuss about the number on the scale to be low.
The truth is that every body is a unique body. Even ones with surface level similarities will have different attachments onto the bone, different joint thickness, segment lengths, etc. that can give advantage or disadvantage in lifts.
A day after my third competition, a friend who spectated spoke on the spotters, some strong men: a “how uncomfortable could it be to ‘be with’ a hard muscled body.” I think I mainly chuckled.
I could have said: I think I’m comfortable to “be with.” (I realize my body is overall softer as being a woman, but I am firm.)
I could have said: muscle is gentler than you may realize.
A friend watched some show, I think it was Say Yes to the Dress, an episode featuring a bodybuilder looking for her wedding dress. My friend didn’t understand why she’d want the dress cut to show so much skin.
I’m not a bodybuilder—and certainly not at the low body fat levels bodybuilders will generally be in (even when not prepping for competition, they tend to be lean)—but I understand. I prefer to wear open backs and sleeveless (or short—hardly a sleeve) looks. I like looking muscular in clothing choices.
And finding proper fitting clothes can be hard: most women’s shirts are designed with the assumption that if your chest + back is 42 inches, then the rest of the shirt will be boxy. Or it fits okay in the middle, but oh my, if I move my arms I might hulk out of this thing. Therefore, the preference becomes for certain stretchy materials.
I have worn a floral, feminine, open-backed sundress, feeling cute but also as if I was cross-dressing. The frills on the straps over my shoulders particularly more femme than my usual. My traps feeling mountainous.
My body is more than its clothing size.
I loathe the concept of making one’s body fit certain clothes: as if the purpose of my body is to succumb to a piece of fabric.
I loathe the normalization of such attitudes, which seem particularly imposed on women as if some form of identification: being a size 6, a size 12, etc.
Eh. The clothes should be honored if they fit me.
When I started wanting to buy clothes that would announce my powerlifter status [“Powerlifting Made This Body” tank top, “Just Strong” t‑shirt, a heart-shaped weight plate on a shirt], my chest + back were already above what the seller had down as typical women’s sizing, and I’d have to buy the unisex to not have a too-tight fit.
A company that makes bar grip shirts for powerlifters to wear during bench pressing (to prevent the back sliding on the bench) and squatting (to help the barbell stay gripped to the back) has men’s and women’s sizing.
Guess which “gender size” I have to wear?
Seriously, the women’s largest size is for a 37-inch chest/back. That’s quite small—definitely in favor of women in lower weight classes.
So I have to order the men’s medium. It arrives announcing its gender expectation on a removable tag. The inside tag (printed directly on the fabric) with the symbolic circle and arrow against my upper back.
I’m thankful for this company and its products, but.
It’s weird to feel like, from this powerlifting-focused company’s perspective, I don’t exist.
There are clothing companies that cater to the lower half: jeans and pants that fit developed quadriceps.
That’s nice. Been successful for me overall. Living in Texas, though, I find jeans too hot most of the year.
Back in 2012 when I first learned that deadlifting 300 lb. (and much more) is achievable for women—if you told me then I’d weigh 185 lb. when I’d finally do it—I’d be a bit bummed, maybe, as I was expecting that pull to be double bodyweight. It wouldn’t be until March 2019 at my third powerlifting competition and weighing around 164 lb. that I’d deadlift 335 lb., above double bodyweight for the first time.
So you could say I bulked from summer 2012 to summer 2018, about 5 to 10 lb. a year, and plenty of it was successfully muscle: in my second competition at 184 lb., I squatted 281 lb., bench pressed 160 lb., and deadlifted 331 lb. with more to spare.
When I cautiously lost body fat from August [185 lb.] to November [170 lb.] 2018 with strict nutrition and hypertrophy training (4–6 sets of 6–12 reps) four or five times a week for various lifts, I realized going up flights of stairs was easier. Pants and skirts that fit me before were now on the verge of falling.
But it was still a mindfuck to be getting smaller yet putting this weight on my back to squat, as telling myself 200 lb. wasn’t much more than my own bodyweight helped with confidence previously.
I had to just learn to tell myself: you’ve done this before. Or not even think about it.
I kept my strength, and that’s what my third competition was about: showing myself that even though I weighed around 22 lb. less than I did at my previous competition, I could lift the same or more.
And I did. I squatted the same, bench pressed just over my bodyweight, and deadlifted well over double bodyweight.
It’s a physically smaller me I see in the mirror now at 160 lb., but I know that she has just as much power. I have more to grow from.
I can love myself at 185 lb. and love myself at 155 lb. Both those women, being me, have value and strength.
I know what Day 1 feels like of starting to train for strength. How the body is a stranger.
You’ll not be strangers for long if you keep going. The body is a constant companion that will get more comfortable with doing your bidding.
I’m not sure if my body is one that people look at and can tell I lift.
I don’t know. I imagine it depends on the clothes and if the viewer knows what such bodies look like (I mean, as opposed to a competition-ready bodybuilder body that has striations noticeable—the kind of body the general population will imagine, probably, when asked to imagine someone muscular).
I want to look like I lift.
I do calm myself in terms of that by the fact, of course, that I do lift. Have competed and placed. A recent medal in my purse.
Lifters look all sorts of ways.
I love the variety of women who come forth to the platform to squat, bench press, and deadlift in competition.
At a powerlifting meet, you’ll see lifters of all ages. I’ve shared the platform with seventy-year-olds and seventeen-year olds.
No matter your size, there is a weight class for you. You cannot be too small or too big to participate.
Lifters look all sorts of ways.
Muscles are not of men only. Muscles exist on everyone. Muscles are of the/every/any body. They are an inheritance you deserve to know.
From the writer
:: Account ::
I wrote this piece to particularly think on how lifting has changed my relationship with my body—my body as a gendered thing, socialized thing, and mortal thing. Lifting has liberated me from my mind vs. my body: powerlifting unites both; both mind and body are needed in moving something heavy. Lifting has liberated me from outdated societal gender expectations. I think there have been various changes in society toward accepting muscularity in women—strength sports in recent years have seen an increase in female participation—but until encouraging physical strength in girls is as widespread as it is for boys, and/or until encouraging physical strength as a legitimate goal for all bodies is widespread, I’m not satisfied. Lifting, for me, promotes my body acceptance/accepting having a body and how I can have this body on my own terms. And this is a joy I wish for everyone to find (either in similar ways to my own or some other path).
Vanessa Couto Johnson is the author of Pungent dins concentric (Tolsun Books, 2018), her first full-length poetry book , and three poetry chapbooks, most recently speech rinse (Slope Editions’ 2016 Chapbook Contest winner). Dialogist, Foundry, Softblow, Thrush, and other journals and anthologies have published her poems. A Brazilian born in Texas (and dual citizen), she has been a lecturer at Texas State University since 2014.